by Matt Reynolds, assistant editor
Americans looking for more healthful alternatives to coffee are increasingly turning to tea, and bakers are uniquely positioned to capitalize on the trend.
Cross-market sweetgoods with complementary tea flavors in order to maximize tea-related profits. Some bakers have even begun to use tea leaves as an ingredient in their products.
The next consumer craze that may influence your bakery has been brewing for nearly five thousand years. Retail bakeries and foodservice operations specializing in baked foods are in a unique position to capitalize on the prophesized tea craze, as baked products are natural complements to tea.
According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc., 2005 was the fourteenth consecutive year of increased tea sales. Sellers anticipate the trend to continue over the next five years, basing expectations primarily on the growing American awareness of and interest in the healthful properties of tea.
Retail bakeries are slowly beginning to recognize the potential of tea, and are following the growing demand. But those who've been serving it for years say it's best to be ahead of the curve.
"As with anything, you should have it before people want it. They are looking for leadership," says Sharon Butler, co-founder of The BonBonerie, a Cincinnati bakery and tearoom. "We started with afternoon tea over eight years ago, and now we see that tea and tearooms are important trends to bakeries."
The first incarnation of Butler's shop, which she began with Mary Pat Pace, was a wholesale bakery. An unexpected shift towards retail sales meant customers congregated in the front of the wholesale shop, not knowing where to be. To take advantage of the captive audience, Butler and Pace decided to take over the vacant adjoining space and start their tearoom.
"It was just so hard to get a good cup of tea, and people were so ignorant about what tea is," Butler says. "It's much more complex than coffee, and has such a variety of flavors."
The first few years were tough, but Butler can see the interest in tea has turned a corner. She says that the growth in health food and organic foods have given tea huge potential, especially with the release of numerous research studies praising tea's status in the antioxidant elite.
Tea's health benefits
According to studies collected by the Tea Association, tea has been shown to aid in cholesterol reduction and prevention of both cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. And, studies showing tea's encouraging effects on aging are appealing to baby boomers creeping up in years, Butler says. The evidence is mounting that tea's health benefits far outstrip those of its natural competitor, coffee, while delivering only half the caffeine.
Clearly, most Americans aren't motivated by health alone. Other incentives have tea's popularity swelling.
"I think it's a fashion," says Julie Bashore, London-born founder of The House of Clarendon in Lancaster, Pa. "It's had a lot of media attention about how it's good for the immune system, and that got people to swing away from coffee toward tea. But there are so many anglophiles in the U.S., tea has also become very fashionable."
Be it for healthful or trendy reasons, tea has made a resurgence in the U.S. market. In order for bakers to maximize tea's potential they will first have to get acquainted with the facts, customs and quirks that accompany the tea culture.
Bashore and Butler have been offering this sort of upscale tea experience for some time, and they understand that simply knowing about tea is half the battle.
"You need to do your own research on tea, or have someone in your shop who is very knowledgeable about it," Butler said. "I would emphasize educating someone within the organization, people want to know that you're with it."
History of tea
The tealeaf is steeped in history and mystique that can assist in promotional efforts. English traditions of High tea and Low tea, for instance, refer not to the status of its drinkers, rather to the height of the table upon which it is consumed, and by extension, refer to the time of day.
And be wary of being too inclusive with what you call tea. Any connoisseur would be quick to remind you that tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant alone, and only in oxidized black, fresh green and semi-fermented Oolong varieties.
As consumers become more knowledgeable about tea, be prepared to answer questions regarding the origins and characteristics of specific blends. Also, many tea manufacturers support free trade policies, guaranteeing a certain wage to tea producers. Tea retailers should be prepared for questions about these practices, as notification is often emblazoned on the box.
With some understanding of tea's history and flavors, bakeries can begin to cross-market the beverage with baked foods.
"I think you can easily market it with cookies," Butler says. "Match Irish soda bread with tea for an Irish breakfast, or pair lemon shortbread with an orange peacock tea. You could even do a pastry with tea cooked in it. That would be a catchy way to promote things."
"Invariably, with the teas that we serve, people want to take [the tea] away with them," Bashore says. "Also the equipment to go with it."
Accessories, such as teaspoons, tea cozies, teapots, English potted cream and even fine china, can accompany tea sales.
"Little by little, show people what tea is good with, and let people learn for themselves," Butler says. "Provide the products that classically go with tea and give samples." At the retail level, sampling is the single most important way to get the tea or the baked foods into people's mouths.
"If you are already selling coffee, adding tea would be worth it," Butler says, considering a bakery with coffee already has most of what they need to serve tea samples. Signage depicting the health benefits of tea, a good selection of brands and varieties, and a good display, accompanied by a little advice and know-how from the staff, can make tea a successful supplement in any bakery situation, she says.
The House of Clarendon and The BonBonerie have thriving tearooms serving as attractions unto themselves.
"The tearoom is an excellent opportunity to fill in during the quiet times when business isn't busy," Bashore says. "As the wedding season dies down and wedding cakes drop off, tea is another way to draw people into the shop and market my cakes¯a wonderful form of advertising."